Ohio – When the Friday night protesters get boisterous along the rural road running past the Greene County farmhouse, Fran DeWine reaches for the remote.
She punches up the volume on Netflix while she and her husband, Ohio’s governor, binge on their latest escape fare: “Virgin River,” “Downton Abbey” and “When Calls the Heart.”
“They are very loud. We just turn up the TV and try to ignore them,” the first lady says of the COVID-19 restriction protesters who shout in the night at Mike DeWine while under the careful watch of a state trooper in the driveway.
While laughing as his wife relays the titles of what they are watching, the governor says of the TV distraction, “We are trying to do escape. We’re trying to go to a fantasy world, I guess.”
More than nine months into a pandemic that has infected one of every 19 Ohioans and killed more than 8,000, DeWine has been praised and vilified. The Republican has been denounced as a tyrant and targeted for no-chance impeachment and arrest. And, at one perilous point, DeWine thought he had caught the virus after a false test result.
The pressure, his spouse says, is immense. “I don’t know that it has changed him. I know he is under stress, but he’s pretty good at dealing with stress. He feels so responsible. He just wants to save lives. Every single day, he is thinking, ‘What more can I do?'”
When the cell phone goes silent and no meetings loom on Zoom, the 73-year-old governor flees his work-from-home experience with 3-mile morning walks in the woods of his 170-acre homestead — the setting for his summertime ice cream socials with supporters and friends last staged in the 2018 election year.
Dolly, the dog the governor didn’t believe he was quite ready for after his beloved Teddy died earlier this year, walks alongside DeWine, the Springer Spaniel never far from her master.
“He took that dog in his arms, and that dog has never been more than 15 feet from him all day, every day. It relaxes Mike to have his friend always there with him,” Mrs. DeWine says of her husband of 53 years.
Another escape for the DeWines, parents of eight and grandparents to 26, is to walk the roads to the homes of two daughters who live nearby to peer at the grandkids through a window while wearing their masks.
“That’s a great, great thing. We go down and see them,” the governor says. Asked when he last held a grandchild, he replies wistfully, “Been awhile … quite a while.”
Following Christmas tradition, the governor and the first lady have been busy buying age-appropriate books for each grandchild, the gifts signed each year by the governor with a personalized message for each. Unusual for him, Fran had to remind her husband of his holiday duty this year.
This COVID Christmas — or Christmas Eve as the designated holiday dinner and gift exchange for the DeWine clan — won’t be the same. There will be food and gift swaps, but no gatherings. Next year, the first lady and governor pray, all can be together.
For DeWine, the protesters outside his farmhouse are tolerated, a price paid for winning public office, one he would rather bear that see visited on others, such as former health director Dr. Amy Acton and her successor, Stephanie McCloud.
“I don’t think there’s anything we could have done to avoid that reaction other than to not do our jobs,” he says.